TRICKY Maxinquaye (Fourth & Broadway)

Way out of left field, geographically and musically, compared to all this Oasis and Blur malachi, "Maxinquaye" is Tricky’s debut album, following Portishead’s "Dummy" and Massive Attack’s "Protection" out of Bristol and into the highbrow award ceremonies, colour supplements and "The Late Show". To say it’s disorientating is to do it a disservice: it carries with it the same rolling, seasick aura that Bjork’s "Debut" did two summers ago, so not-the-same is it to any conventional pop, rock, soul, rap or dance reference point you’d care to throw at it. And like "Debut", that makes it fantastic...for a while.

Starting with the almost obligatory new version of Massive Attack’s "Karmacoma", here called "Overcome", in fact one of the more straightforward tracks on the album, the first side also takes in "Black Steel", his gobsmacking restructuring of Public Enemy’s "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos", filled to the brim with grunge geetars, the spooky "Hell Is Round The Corner" and the ballet-dancer-in-Doc-Marten-boots lopsided swagger of "Pumpkin", which features co-vocalist Martine at her Bjorkiest ( Robert Newman). But after that, just like "Debut", things go awry in a manner that you can’t quite place your finger on - it’s not that the second side is bad, definitely not uninspired, but there’s only so much angst, alienation and paranoia you can take at one sitting, and eventually "Maxinquaye" leaves that line way behind, ending up a bit like UB40 covering The The’s "Dusk" album in its entirety, under the guiding hand of producer Professor Eno. But although it may not be altogether sure about where it’s headed, "Maxinquaye" gets about halfway there in fine style.

NEARLY GOD Nearly God (Fourth & Broadway/Durban Poison)

Not content with winning the coveted NME album of the year award for his startling Satan’s trip-hop debut "Maximquaye" and the imminent release of his long-awaited and long-recorded (almost two years ago) second album, Massive Attack collaborator Tricky, finding himself with an hour or two to spare, launches his own record label (Durban Poison) and records "Nearly God", featuring his collaborations with, among others, Terry Hall, Neneh Cherry, Bjork and Alison Moyet.

"Nearly God", like so few records released these days, and despite the plethora of blatant samples and obvious reference points, sounds like nothing you’ve heard before (as did "Maximquaye"). Opening with a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ "Tattoo", the album establishes a pattern of clanking drum tracks, discordant almost-melodies and half-whispered, half-moaned vocals. The cover of jazz standard "Black Coffee", intoxicatingly emoted by Tricky’s old co-vocalist Martine, is instrumented entirely by a loop stolen from Elvis Costello’s "Pills And Soap"; likewise "Keep Your Mouth Shut" is accompanied by Bjork’s "Cover Me" playing quietly in the background. Other highlights include the Terry Hall collaborations "Poems" (an optimistic single choice) and "Bubbles", with backing track lifted from Tricky’s own "Suffocated Love". Unremittingly bleak, dark and satanic as it is, the Nearly God project is another lost classic along the way to cementing Tricky’s reputation as a maverick, difficult genius.

TRICKY Pre-Millennium Tension (Fourth & Broadway)

"I asked Hank Williams ‘How bad does it get?’", laughing Len Cohen once grunted, and judging by the evidence presented here he was asking the wrong man. "Pre-Millennium Tension" is another few revolutions down the emotional spiral from his marvellous debut album "Maxinquaye", riddled with the kind of insecurity and coke-fuelled paranoia that’s more normally the province of mid-70s documentaries about David Bowie. With song titles like "Bad Dreams", "Makes Me Wanna Die", "Bad Things", "Lyrics Of Fury" and "My Evil Is Strong" Tricky looks unlikely to gain a toehold in the next "Best Party Album In The World...Ever" tracklisting, which can’t help being a good thing.

Musically, "Pre-Millennium Tension" is even sparser and more stripped down than "Maxinquaye"; the instrumentation consists substantially of static, wheezing, clanging, banging and, bizarrely, the odd Commodores sample. "Can’t hardly breathe", the Trickster moans in the opening ‘song’ "Vent", and he’s absolutely right, this being some of the most oppressive and claustrophobic music you’re ever likely to clap ears on. Recent non-hit single "Christiansands" follows, one of the few tracks here to pay lip service to concepts such as melody. Then there’s the already-legendary "Tricky Kid", pretty much the album’s abstract ("They used to call me Tricky Kid/I live the life they wish they did/I live the life don’t own a car/And now they call me superstar"). "Bad Dreams", written by Robert Frazier and Mark James whoever they may be, seems to be the album’s token rap cover, a fuzzy, frenzied thing that’s every inch the equal of "Maxinquaye"’s execution of Public Enemy’s "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos". "Makes Me Wanna Die" has Tricky’s sidekick Martine emoting over a metronomic drum loop and a surprisingly fluid and laid-back guitar line, which sounds like the only part of the album that’s played rather than programmed - no criticism of any kind implied by that, of course. "Who do you think you are?/You’re insignificant/A small piece/A ism", she croons in a tiny voice that would nevertheless do a better job at sea defence than King Canute could. "Ghetto Youth" is six minutes of impenetrable patois babble by some bloke called Sky; of debatable relevance, perhaps, but at least it offers a respite from the psychological turmoil that constitutes the rest of the album.

Side two begins with a parping one-note harmonica solo from Tricky that eventually ravels itself into "Sex Drive", home to some of the most inspired verbal jousting since "Selling England By The Pound". "Lyrics Of Fury" blows in as a brief moment of clarity amidst the murk, with a percussion line that could possibly trace its heritage back to something vaguely drum-like rather than being beaten out on a discarded pieces of a central heating system, over which Martine raps with a mission (although what that mission may be remains unclear). "My Evil Is Strong" is the album’s only clunker, an obscure (well, obscurer than the rest, at least) beastie that trips up on its own imagined rhythmic complexity and ends up going nowhere. Not so the closing track "Piano"; a demented counterpoint to Michael Nyman’s meal ticket, it features Tricky mumbling stuff like "To the noose/To the neck/To the boost/To the check/To the micic/To the psychic/To the circuit/To the flowers/To the bunches/To the lunches/To the punches" ad nauseum over a backing track that consists of a four-note piano loop and a dodgy respirator.

So, how bad does it get? Who’s bad, even? No worse than this, hopefully, and Tricky, respectively. Whatever kind of music you’ve chosen to get excited about during 1996, be it the admittedly darn good Manics album, Kevin Connolly or, heck, even the triumphant return (and subsequent disappearance again, knowing my luck) of The Blue Nile, "Pre-Millennium Tension" has to stake the most convincing claim for the top of the pile, because it’s the only album released during the year that’ll change the way you listen to music or die (well, lie down for a bit with a bad headache at least) trying. Yet again, Tricky has fashioned something that genuinely didn’t exist beforehand, a kind of negatively spooked minimalist trip-hop, at a push the kind of album Portishead could make if they had absolutely no songwriting ability whatsoever. By turns it’s compelling and frightening, a weirdly addictive brew that always keeps the listener at arm’s length, no matter how much turntable time it occupies, or even demands (i.e. a lot). Its ethos is summed up most elegantly by its maverick creator: "I’ll master your language/And in the meantime I’ll create my own".

TRICKY Angels With Dirty Faces (Island)

Press rumbling’s suggested that Tricky’s third solo album would be his most musically difficult yet, but, let’s be honest, from the man who had already fashioned such gems of the left field as "Pre-Millennium Tension" and the Nearly God project, how bad could it get?

Well, this bad. "Angels With Dirty Faces" may well be reviewed (or reviled) by rock histories as one of the classic commercial suicide albums of the late 20th Century, up there with the likes of Lou Reed’s "Berlin" and "Metal Machine Music" or some of Neil Young’s more bizarre career cross-roads manoeuvres. Whereas before Tricky channelled all his hate, fury and negativity into uncompromising but brilliant rock music, this time around he seems to have forgotten about the brilliant bit. "Angels With Dirty Faces" is not an easy ride.

It begins promisingly enough with the loose-limbed paranoid rant (but aren’t they all?) of "Money Greedy", which also featured on the live gig aired by Channel 4 recently. Other early highlights include his co-singer Martine’s off-kilter cover of "Singing The Blues", which sounds like it could’ve fallen off the "Nearly God" sessions. The single "Broken Homes" is a deranged waltz which employs the vocal talent of P J Harvey to good effect, and just about the most commercial three minutes on the entire album. (It will be interesting to see what, if any, track is chosen to be the second single.)

From this point on proceedings gradually begin to slide under the table: there’s a high-speed cover of "The Moment I Feared", which, from the writing credits, appears to be Public Enemy-related in a way that neither me nor "The Great Rock Discography" can work out, and a good acreage of Billie Holiday’s "God Bless The Child" somehow gets appropriated into "Carriage For Two". But these are the sole moments of lucidity in the closing sides of "Angels With Dirty Faces", the remainder being the sound of a paranoid man whispering scattershot logic into his sleeve to the sound of a musical backdrop that sounds almost comically disconnected. Are the drum patterns behind "Talk To Me (Angels With Dirty Faces)" meant to be some kind of Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits tribute, or merely the result of a stoned musician kicking the sequencer across the studio? What purpose the confused rant of "Record Companies" (e.g. "Chew compassion save some sons/Why d’you keep buying their guns/Foolish, life’s too short for stray bullets" etc. etc., with later references to 2Pac, The Notorious BIG and Billie Holiday (again)) when the author is a minor league record company magnate himself, via his own Durban Poison imprint? And, crucially, what is the Tricky Kid up to, what does he think he’ll achieve with all of this?

"Angels With Dirty Faces" leaves you wondering how long it’ll be before Island calls time on their wayward genius (Island being the shrewd company, remember, who dropped Julian Cope after he recorded two of his best albums, and signed up the Orb to make three of their worst). These look like being the most uncertain times in Tricky history since he made it big with Massive Attack back in 1991.

TRICKY WITH DJ MUGGS AND GREASE Juxtapose (Island)

With The Man's typical foresight and timing, Island waited until Tricky had released his best album in years (complete with the woefully prophetic line in its fabulous lead-off single "For Real", "And when the record company drops me/That's when I'll learn") before dumping him from the roster. Given that this is the same company that allowed him to release last year's barely listenable critic-baiting "Angels With Dirty Faces" you have to wonder whether anyone with ears is steering the good ships of the world's media conglomerates.

Nevertheless, whilst the dust settles we still have "Juxtapose" to listen to, and it’s good: not "Maxinquaye" or "Pre-Millennium Tension" good, possibly not even "Nearly God" good, but it presents a musically revitalised Adrian Thaws, aided and abetted by a posse including DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and high-speed rapper Mad Dog. For once there are chinks of light in the darkness, chiefly on the corporate-lacerating "For Real". But mostly songs such as "Hot Like A Sauna (Metal Mix)", "Wash My Soul" and "Scrappy Love" are as unrelenting as their titles, and Tricky history, suggest. But the overall sound of the album is one of a convincing sonic u-turn, no longer careering towards the amelodic dead end he was in hot pursuit of throughout "Angels With Dirty Faces". And for that you can forgive "Juxtapose" an awful lot, maybe even Mad Dog's x-rated rapping on "I Like The Girls" or the two minimally modified mixes of "Hot Like A Sauna". Even the comparatively brief 37-minute running time begins to look like a listener-friendly blessing rather than a curse.

"Juxtapose" is, thankfully, evidence that Tricky is on the musical road to recovery. He's not there yet, but recent developments may yet turn out to be more of a help than a hindrance. If this album doesn't become recognised as a classic in years to come, the chances of his next one doing so look increasingly likely.

TRICKY Blowback (Anti)

Now post-Island, very much post-wheat allergy, Adrian Thaws' fifth album should by rights be a gurgling, creamy treat of giggling pixie enchantment. And though it isn't, naturally, it is nevertheless another giant step along the road to musicality, a concept you might be forgiven for thinking Tricky had abandoned permanently following his dingy, stifling third long player "Angels With Dirty Faces".

"Blowback" is a kaleidoscopic, if monochrome, thing, by the man's wayward standards: if you can envisage a kaleidoscope populated by intricate shapes and shadings of grey then this is its aural equivalent. Even a cursory glance at the sleevenotes should alert you to the fact that something other is going on here. Collaborators number Alanis Morissette and Cyndi Lauper, if you can believe that, along with a few stray Red Hot Chili Peppers and Live singer Ed Kowalczyk. Songs selected include Nirvana's "Something In The Way", dubbed into patois by gifted significant other vocalist Hawkman, "Your Name", extracted from a musical whose identity eludes me for the moment, but trust me , you'd recognise it too and, it gets stranger, a reimagination of the theme from "Wonder Woman" (apparently: even I'm a little too young to verify this exactly) entitled "#1 Da Woman". And in the bizarre samples stakes, there's a few strands of DNA from Squeeze's magnificent "Tempted" in the gene pool of "Evolution Revolution Love", although I haven't been able to detect it so far, and "You Don't Wanna" is built around a slowed-down riff from the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)".

All of which makes "Blowback" Tricky's big shiny pop album, relatively. And although it's very fine, crammed with what passes for variety in Trickyville, it doesn't snag the listener like the paranoid whirligig of "Pre-Millennium Tension", it's not as sublimely, shockingly other as "Maxinquaye" was on release, and for all its celebrity squares I can't rate it over the similarly encumbered loops and reels of his Nearly God project. But in terms of recent Tricky history, "Blowback" is a minor triumph, at least.

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